04/13/2016 09:41 EDT | Updated 04/13/2016 09:46 EDT

Senate Liberals Invite Independents To Work With Them

“We’re Liberals, whether you call us big “L” Liberals, or small ‘l’ liberals."

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

OTTAWA — The Senate Liberals are extending an open hand to the new independent members of the upper chamber, inviting them to join their caucus or work with them informally.

Since January 2014, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau kicked his senators out of his caucus — almost a year after taking over as party leader — Liberal members of the red chamber haven’t had a whipped vote, the head of the group, James Cowan, told The Huffington Post Canada Wednesday.

“We are completely independent.”

All the Senate Liberals’ votes are free, on any bill and any motion, and the caucus is just a collection of like-minded people who enjoy working together, their leader said.

James Cowan, flanked by other newly declared Independent Senators, speaks to reporters on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Jan. 29, 2014. (Photo: CP)

Cowan wrote to the seven new independent senators, who were appointed by Trudeau and sworn in Tuesday, to let them know how his caucus operates.

“I don’t think any of them are going to come and join our Liberal caucus, right now at least, but I hope that as they look around and they see in the chamber people who share their values and approach to things, that some of them might feel comfortable working with us,” he said.

New Quebec Senator Chantal Petitclerc told HuffPost it is “wonderful” that people are extending a hand and she is open to working with anyone of common interest or conviction, but she has no interest in joining a party caucus.

“Very honestly, I arrive here as an independent senator who has never had any political affiliations in the past, and I’m not interested in that, for all types of reasons.”

Quebec Senator Chantal Petitclerc said she's not interested in joining a party caucus. (Photo: Patrice LaPointe/fotosports.ca)

Petitclerc plans to vote and make decisions first and foremost as a citizen, guided by her convictions, expertise and competence, the former paralympian said.

“I won’t be engaging in any politics,” she added, with a big smile. “I’m told I’m being very naïve and that eventually … we’re in a certain world, a certain system, with all that.

“I want to do a good job; I want to do this work well. I believe in it. So I want to take the time to figure out how it works, how this critter [the Senate] works,” she said.

Her remaining an independent senator, however, won’t change, she added. “It was one of the reasons why I wanted to do it. So it’s certain, I’ll remain that way.”

Liberal Senator Mobina Jaffer thinks the new independents should take their time and find their own path.

“Very honestly, I arrive here as an independent senator who has never had any political affiliations in the past."

— Quebec Senator Chantal Petitclerc

A long-time Liberal, she has been a vice-president of the Liberal party and the head of the Liberals’ women’s commission, and she said she’s pleased to be part of a party caucus because she can accomplish more work there than she could on her own.

“I like to work with people I can trust, who like to work on issues and have the same values as I do,” she said.

“This place is really lonely,” Jaffer added. “This isn’t a place to go solo, this is a place to work as a team.”

Two members of her team, however, have recently headed for the doors: B.C. Senator Larry Campbell and New Brunswick Senator Pierrette Ringuette.

“The institution has to rise above partisan politics; that is the demand of the Canadian population."

— New Brunswick Senator Pierrette Ringuette

Ringuette left the Liberal caucus because it is a “Liberal caucus,” she said.

“The institution has to rise above partisan politics; that is the demand of the Canadian population,” she told HuffPost. “This institution can no longer tolerate the status quo.”

Too many people are more interested in “the little powers that they can give themselves” because of outdated rules, she said, adding that the place needs a revamp.

“The future of the Senate relies on the total chamber being independent,” she said.

More independence, less partisanship

Seven independents, including Ringuette, have formed a working group. They and other Liberal and Conservative senators are engaged in trying to modernize the red chamber to ensure that independents can sit on committees and vote, take part in proceedings in a more equal manner, and that the chamber finds new purpose as a more independent less partisan body.

The Conservative caucus has also lost many members to the lure of independence.

Harper appointees Diane Bellemare, Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu, Jacques Demers, Michel Rivard and John Wallace all now sit as independents.

Longtime Conservative Senator David Tkachuk said the list of groups is getting confusing. “There are Liberal independents, Trudeau independents, independents who left Liberal caucus, [and] the Conservatives who also left,” he said. “Five groups on the other side and none of them are organized to run the place.”

Conservative Senator David Tkachuk. (Photo: CP)

Tkachuk said Cowan can ask all he wants for the independents to join his Liberal team, but he’s more surprised that the new independents haven’t asked the old Liberals to join their team.

“In the end, I think the Liberals will all come together, this was all just a sham anyway.”

Cowan said he’s aware some people think the Senate Liberals are not really independent because they usually vote — with the notable exception of Bill C-51, which the Senate Liberal opposed — along with their Liberal cousins in the Commons.

“We’re Liberals, whether you call us big “L” Liberals, or small ‘l’ liberals, or progressives, that is what we are and that is why we work together, because we generally share the same outlook on life and generally vote the same way on most things,” he said.

Independent senators could work in 'perfectly legitimate way'

The big difference is that, unlike how the Conservatives ran the Senate during the past decade, when “the perception, if not the reality, was that the Senate majority was being controlled out of the prime minister’s office,” this is no longer the case.

The Senate Liberals have to call themselves “Liberals,” Cowan added, because the rules of the upper chamber stipulate that a caucus has to have the same name as a recognized party with Elections Canada.

“You can’t use the name ‘Canada First Caucus’ or something like that and be formally recognized,” he said. “But that might change.”

For now, though, Cowan is content if Canadians and the new independents know that there is a “perfectly legitimate way” in which senators can operate independently, outside of anyone’s control or direction, while still being part of a team.

And perhaps, he suggested, as the weeks and months wear on, the new independents will realize they have a lot in common with the Liberals.

“I would hope, for the sake of the country, obviously, that they are progressives, and that they are going to be as we move to undo some of the more extreme measures, like the anti-union stuff. I hope they’ll vote as we do, but I don’t know.”

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